Roma activist Magdalena Karvayova: Our children don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel

Czechia has come under fire from the Council of Europe for slow progress in addressing discrimination against the country’s Roma minority. What is the life of the Roma minority like in this country today, how did the Roma fare under communism and why is it so hard to root out existing prejudices against them?

Those are some of the questions I put to Magdalena Karvayova, co-founder of the Awen Amenca association, which focusses on securing equal access to quality education for Roma children.

Magdaléna Karvayová | Photo: Radio Prague International

“The Roma population nowadays, according to official data is around 250,000 Roma. However the actual number is estimated to be twice as high, because not all Roma people declare themselves to be Romanies. This is due to what happened in WWII where the Roma identity was misused.

“The Roma people were nomads and they came to the territory of the Czech Republic in the 14th century. However, they were moving around and only settled down here in the 18th-19th centuries. During WWII 90% of the Czech Roma were killed. And then we had a wave of Slovak Romanies and other Roma coming to the Czech Republic – so we can only speak about the settlement of the present-day Roma here after the Second World War.”

How did they fare under communism were they discriminated against in those years?

“During the communist regime the discrimination had a different form, especially with regard to education and that is why nowadays the situation is the way it is. Because during communist times Roma people were educated in a special system. They did not get enough knowledge, they could not find a good job and they found themselves in what we call “socio-economic exclusion”. “

So the roots of the problem go back to those years. I think the forced sterilizations of women also go back to that time, isn’t that so?

“Exactly, because Roma people – you know we tend to have big families. Tradition is very important to us and we always used to have big families – because the family is the most important thing for us. This constituted an issue back then and unfortunately, forced sterilizations occurred.”

Was the practice widespread?

“I am not a specialist in this respect. We know that a few women decided to speak out, but many more remained silent, so it could be dozens of women. But only a few decided to come forward…”

And they are now getting compensation but not fast enough, I understand…

“Exactly, it is not much and the money could never compensate enough what happened to them. What they are striving for is justice. A feeling that justice has been done and that this will never happen again. Unfortunately, the process of receiving compensation is slow, even though the Czech Republic was internationally condemned for the practice and it is a pity that although the authorities recognized the wrong that had been done, the compensation is taking so long.”

And it is a process that is likely humiliating and painful for the women in question… What was the situation like after the fall of communism? Where are the Roma settled today –in the big cities or spread around the country – and how did their life change after 1989?

Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio

“Roma people are spread around the Czech Republic, however there are two regions with the highest number of socially excluded areas –in the northern parts of the Czech Republic and in Moravia. Moravia was the first place that the Roma migrated to after the Second World War, around the Ostrava region. Of course, Roma people also live in Prague and central Bohemia and other parts of the country. However in each region there are always segregated localities, whether we speak about streets or one big area – there are segregated localities.”

And they are close-knit communities that stick together, don’t they? With the strong family tradition you have several generations under one roof and the Roma take exemplary care of their elderly people which is not something you can say about the majority population…

“It is true that we take care of our elderly people, but nowadays it is not always the case that two generations would necessarily be living together. They would be close to each other and even if the grandmother lives further away, her family would take care of her – it is not usual for the Roma to put their elderly relatives in old people’s homes.

“So yes, we do take care of our families, but now it is common that the family unit – mother, husband and children, occasionally grandparents, live together.”

Roma children | Photo: Martin Dorazín,  Czech Radio

And the tradition of big families? Having many children –is that still as important?

“Well, the times being what they are, it is not always easy and the Roma have to take this into consideration. So it is not like in the past when the Roma had ten or twelve children.”

What is the average number you find in Roma families nowadays? Four, five?

“There are no official figures and no research in this field, but what I see is families with three or four children. Sometimes five or six, but that is rare.”

And do they still marry young or are they going with the trend and marrying later in life?

“They are going with the trend. It is not like it used to be. And you also see people who are not married living together.”

We have just had a visit by the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe who concluded that the Roma are still discriminated against in practically all areas of life in this country. Can you tell us how bad the situation is – and in what areas?

Photo: Michaela Danelová,  Czech Radio

“I think that the worst situation is in the field of education and housing. And that leads to employment, because if you do not have a good education you cannot find a decent job. Also lots of Roma are trapped in debt, which is another big issue. As regards housing –in the Czech Republic most houses or flats are in private ownership and many non-Roma, who never came into contact with Romanies and who do not have a direct experience, are full of prejudice. Either from what they read in the media or from someone else’s experience. And so it is very difficult for a Roma person to find decent housing –outside of the socially excluded areas.”

Despite all the problems you mentioned, there have been several cases of exceptionally successful young Romanies –like the pianist Tomáš Kačo. Does not that give young Romanies hope they can reach for something better? Is there peer-to-peer support in the community?

“Of course, having positive role models within the community is very important. However, one thing that greatly influences people’s minds is the media and we do not see a lot of positive news about the Roma in the media. We do now and then, but it is mainly negative. Roma people are being portrayed in a very negative way. So yes, role models are very, very important, but unfortunately what we see is that when you have a successful Roma they move out of the community and they live their life. Of course, there are a few who want to give back to the community but generally, they get a good job and they live their life, which I think is normal because they finally got out of the vicious circle.

“But we use these successful Romanies in our projects – I work in the sphere of education - and we use them as bright examples to boost children’s motivation. Because most of the youngsters – children as well as their parents – they don’t have hope. They don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Because they have been cheated by the system. I think it is degrading how they have been cheated in the sphere of education. Our children are told that they are stupid, they are given labels like mental disability, behavioral disorder, ADHD. They are not being motivated enough to dream, and to strive for their dreams.”

Several years ago, there was an idea to introduce Roma police officers, and Roma assistants to police officers. Did that work out at all in the community’s favour?

Photo: Gabriela Hauptvogelová,  Czech Radio

“Yes, it did. There are many localities where this actually worked well. It always works well. When there is somebody from the community who knows it well, who knows how to treat the people, it always beneficial.

“And if I may give another good example, in Ostrava in one of the municipal parks we worked on establishing a community leadership. We helped turn a number of Romany mothers into community leaders that are now being employed by the municipality to work with the community and the situation there has improved tremendously.”

Would you say that prejudice against the Roma is still widespread in this country?

“Unfortunately, yes”.

And what is the way to overcome that?

“That is a very complex issue. There is not just one answer to this. There are many ways how this can be overcome, and the most important is that people come in touch with each other –the majority population with the Roma community – to give them an opportunity to experience something positive with each other, to understand the culture. For instance in Czech schools Roma history and Roma culture is not being taught and even in poetry when they speak about us they do not even say “Roma” but “gypsy”, and again in a negative connotation. So we need to get the Roma history, Roma culture into the Czech school curricula so that the Roma identity is supported and can become stronger and that the non-Roma people get the opportunity to learn something about us.”

Do you belive this will happen in your lifetime?

“It will. Despite the existing problems, I see small steps of improvement and I think that the situation is getting better, little by little –at least on the side of the community. Because for example we work as community organizers and we try to empower the community and we see that in some parts of Ostrava, where the community has been empowered they take the social changes into their own hands and strive for them.”